Jesuits in Formation Enrich Campus Experience

Jesuits in Formation Enrich Campus Experience

By Eugene Curtin

Dzao Vu and Jeff Sullivan, BA’03, both well advanced on the path to become Jesuit, Catholic priests, are spending part of their formation process at Creighton University.

Vu, a native of Vietnam who immigrated to the United States at a young age with his parents, will be here until May with a view to beginning his theology studies in the fall of 2021. The study of theology is one of the final steps before ordination.

Sullivan, a native of Indiana, is in the fourth year of his theology studies and was recently ordained a transitional deacon, the final step before ordination to the full priesthood, which he expects to occur next summer. Sullivan has been at Creighton for two years and says no end to his time at the University has been set.

Pharmacist Feels Call to Deeper Vocation

Dzao Vu, born and raised in impoverished, post-war Vietnam, sees things you don’t.

He sees his paternal grandmother gathering clandestinely in unapproved religious gatherings where she and other members of the Legion of Mary evangelize the Catholic faith. He sees them gathering publicly in Saigon at Sunday Mass, dressed in white and sitting together — a coded testimony to their allegiance to a global Catholic evangelical movement of some 10 million people that in 2021 will mark its 100th anniversary.

He hears thing you don’t. He hears his grandmother and her co-religionists discussing the spiritual and physical needs of the people they secretly teach, and he hears the stories they tell of the thousands of martyrs — native Vietnamese, and French missionaries — killed between 1745 and 1862, from whose ranks emerged 117 saints canonized by St. John Paul II in 1988, an event the government of Vietnam would not permit its citizens to attend.

These stories, Vu says, impressed upon him the vigor of the Catholic faith during the first 17 years of his life spent growing up in revolutionary Vietnam. Under the watchful eye of a communist government that monitored closely all expressions of religious faith, there matured within him convictions that eventually led him to the Society of Jesus, a path that currently, and for a little while longer, sees him serving as an instructor at the Creighton School of Pharmacy and Health Professions. There he serves as chaplain to first-year physical therapy students and leads them in their studies of anatomy.

Dzao Vu, SJ, PharmD, now in the regency period of his Jesuit formation, lives with the Jesuit community at Creighton Hall. Ahead lie studies in theology, ordination to the transitional diaconate and then, in approximately three years, ordination to the priesthood.

Much has happened along the way, including an experience Vu says he values greatly — his missioning after first vows to Loyola University Chicago where he studied public health, a credential that permits him to co-teach third-year pharmacy students at Creighton in a required public health course.

It’s a world away from what he knew.

In a country where a combination of Catholic and South Vietnamese identity was enough to bar entry to a university, it would have been easier to go along to get along. But, Vu said, he found he could not forget those grandmotherly testimonies, deny his faith, or embrace communist culture.

“I would sit and listen to these heroic women telling these stories about how people practiced their faith until they were killed,” he says. “That is how the seeds of Catholic faith blossomed in Vietnam. Hearing about our ancestors, I just didn’t want to give up. If the government oppressed me, then I would stand up, I would not surrender my Catholic faith.”

Vu, now 44, came to the United States in 1992 with his mother, his carpenter father who spent eight years in a Vietnamese “re-education” camp, and one other sibling. Two older siblings would join them later, courtesy of a family reunification program sponsored by the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. A third sibling remains in Vietnam, where she is married.

His father’s prison camp years were another formative influence, Vu says.

“During those years my mother single-handedly raised five children,” he says. “She had to support my father, too. At first, we didn’t know if he would ever be released, so we visited him and stayed in touch.”

When the Vu family arrived in Houston in 1992 as beneficiaries of an agreement between Vietnam and the U.S. that permitted Vietnamese emigration, they immediately joined one of 10 Vietnamese parishes. The search for employment soon led the family to Omaha where Vu’s parents, now 80 and 83, still reside.

The road from that day to Vu’s commitment to the Jesuit path in 2014 has been winding.

He attended Omaha Central High School, where he often gazed over Creighton’s campus, never dreaming his future lie there. He earned his pharmacy doctorate at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Then, a memorable conversation with Creighton Jesuit the Rev. Larry Gillick, SJ, assisted by friendships with Vietnamese Jesuit scholastics, followed by work as a pharmacist in Las Vegas, led him to a decision that the priestly life really was his calling.

“I had established a career as a pharmacist, but I thought to myself, ‘Well, what is the purpose of my life?’ I felt a call to a deeper vocation. I decided to maximize my gifts by becoming a Jesuit — to educate, to serve and to help the less fortunate.”

A Calling Realized

Jeff Sullivan says his friends always figured he’d be a Jesuit.

Sullivan himself wasn’t so sure. It was not, after all, until six years after he graduated from Creighton in 2003 with a BA in English that he formally joined the Society of Jesus. But those intervening six years confirmed that life as a Jesuit beckoned.

From 2003 to 2004, he worked with Legal Action of Wisconsin as a Jesuit volunteer, and then until 2006 as staff. From 2006 to 2008, he worked with the Working Boys Center, now known as the Center for Working Families, a Jesuit mission in Quito, Ecuador, and then from 2008 to 2009 at the Red Cloud Indian School, a Jesuit institution on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

That’s a lot of Jesuit for someone who wasn’t actually a Jesuit.

“Even though I eventually joined, and really always knew it was where I should be, I was still a little resistant,” he says. “I wanted all the joy of being a Jesuit but without the responsibilities.”

Sullivan speaks those words with an easy laugh, as he does often, and about much. A native of Indianapolis and the son of practicing Catholics who he says sacrificed much to ensure that he and his brother received a Catholic education, Sullivan says two profound experiences persuaded him to make, and keep, the Jesuit commitment.

The first consisted of completing the famous Spiritual Exercises, which are descended from the practices of Society of Jesus founder St. Ignatius of Loyola and are designed to deepen a prayerful relationship with God.

“That was a really profound prayer experience of being loved unconditionally,” he says. “I think we tell ourselves that we are unconditionally loved, but it’s one thing to know it in our head but it’s another to feel it in the heart. I don’t think I had really felt it before in that way.”

Then, after joining the Jesuits in 2009, Sullivan took the first step on the long road to ordination when he was handed $30, a one-way bus ticket to Mexico and told to trust God. Many of his Jesuit brothers who faced the same trial found themselves living in homeless shelters and walking a path of poverty in homage to the founders of the Society of Jesus, who lived almost 500 years ago.

But Sullivan’s fate was happier, uncomfortably so.

“When I got to Mexico, I was pretty quickly escorted to a Jesuit service project near the Guatemalan border working with people who were immigrating through Mexico from Guatemala to the United States,” he recalls.

“It was pretty easy because I spoke Spanish, and I was white, so they kind of knew that I was a seminarian. I stayed with this family and was treated really well. They gave me six meals a day, and I remember feeling that this wasn’t right, that I should be competing with Ignatius, that I should be with the poor, that I should be suffering.”

His fear that he was “doing the pilgrimage wrong” was allayed after a conversation with his novice master who told him he was being asked to receive gratefully the gift of love.

“That was really powerful,” Sullivan says. “It’s not just an exciting journey, which is how people like to think of a pilgrimage, it is a test of your ability to love and accept love unconditionally.

“Those are the two experiences that gave me the freedom to say yes to the Jesuits — the understanding that saying yes had nothing to do with what I’m going to do in the world, but everything to do with how I can be present in what God is already doing.”

Sullivan, recently ordained a transitional deacon, the last step before being ordained a priest next summer, brings a light touch to his ministry. The days of the priest-as-authority-figure are fading, he says, and being replaced by priests who lead the way to God by demonstrating authenticity in an inauthentic world.

It’s a philosophy he brings to his current role as pastoral coordinator for Creighton’s Campus Ministry program.

A simple internet search turns up a series of short pieces by Sullivan published at The Jesuit Post. They deal with real-life issues and are peppered with popular culture references.

“I think people from the baby boomer generation down are resistant to the idea of authority,” he says. “People are drawn to authenticity. Reality TV, for example, is not real at all. I think people are hungering for an authenticity the world is not providing, and that consumerism does not provide. Young people more than anybody hunger for that.”